With two different orders to work from home, I’ve had a lot of extra time this year to read.
That has been a huge blessing. As a pastor, I feel that it’s my duty to continually sharpen my skills in this way. But I would be lying if I said that was the only reason that I felt blessed by this. I really enjoy reading, but especially works that pertain biblical scripture, history, and culture. And the extra time to do so these past few months has been absolutely great!
But, of course, some of the books that I’ve read this year have been better than others. I also think that some of the books that I’ve enjoyed should be read by more than just me. So, I won’t go into too much detail as to not spoil anything if you decide to pick up a copy yourself. I’ll link each title to its Amazon page, but if you do choose to pick one up, it might be best to first try to find it at your local bookstore.
Here’s a list of the top 5 books that I have read this past year.
5. “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman
Admittedly, this is a re-read from last year.
Thurman’s work made my “top 5 list” in 2019. But after the racial tensions of the previous months, I decided that I would benefit from reading it again. In fact, I think that anyone who is looking to gain a better understanding of what it might mean to be both black and Christian in this country should read Jesus and the Disinherited.
The central question of this book is: “what does the religion of Jesus have to offer to those with their backs against the wall?” And in the time of this book’s writing (1949), those who had their backs against the wall were black Americans. Thurman begins by explaining that Jesus was also a minority living in a world pitted against Him. But instead of learning to hate, fear, or deceive his enemies to get what He wanted, Jesus practiced love, forgiveness, and nonviolence.
His chapter on fear, and its relation to segregation, as well as the chapter on hate, are worth the price of the book itself. Check it out here.
4. “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times” by Soong-Chan Rah
Rah’s book is one-part Bible commentary on the book of Lamentations and another-part social commentary on American culture. That is, each chapter of “Prophetic Lament” looks at a section of the biblical text of Lamentations followed by a somewhat biographical application of the text.
It was Rah’s application that I found most helpful. He touches on topics like injustice, triumphalism, and the necessity of honest Christian reflection about the world around us.
Lament isn’t something that I practice much. But after reading this book, I now understand that I really am missing an important expression of faith by not doing so. Rah also makes the argument that lament, when done communally, is a great way to show hospitality to the vulnerable around you. If we do not immediately shift to something more joyous when faced with sorrow or find ways to quickly deny that any injustice has occurred, we are able to gain insight into our neighbors who live lives that aren’t as privileged as ours.
Check it out here.
3. “Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto” by Lee C. Camp
The premise of Camp’s books is that Christianity is “neither left, nor right, nor religious.” To his mind, Christian expression that adopts any of the forms of either right or left-leaning politics is an adulteration of the faith. It’s idolatry. And he breaks down what he means by this through a series of 15 propositions.
Christians believe that the end of history has already been written. Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of a new creation coming, and all who put their trust in the Lord will one day experience God’s coming kingdom for eternity. But the hope of that message, according to Camp, has been co-opted by both left and right-leaning politics in the United States.
Language that scripture uses to describe the church or Israel is often used interchangeably by politicians to also describe our country. The United States is the new “city on a hill,” a nation that God protects, and all the actions we take are God-sanctioned. Consequently, many Christians now live more for the “hope” promised by presidents that by their Bibles.
How do we move away from this? Camp has a few ideas. Check it out here.
2. “Jesus and John Wayne” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
I always try to read books that might challenge the way I understand things. While it is nice to read authors that I know I’ll agree with completely, it’s not always helpful for me. This was one of those books.
Du Mez is a professor at Calvin college and a religious historian. And within this book, she attempts to trace out how certain deeply rooted beliefs within Evangelical culture came about. Starting in the 1940’s, Du Mez traces the rise of teachings on gender roles (with an emphasis on hyper masculinity), the church’s insistence of American exceptionalism, nationalism, and race. She concludes that none of these teachings have their origin in scripture but instead within a wider cultural resistance to communism and socialism, especially during the period of the Cold War.
This book was very convicting to me. I’ve already got a few more titles lined up on the same topic so I can learn more. But if you’d like to read it, you can check it out here.
1. “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters” by Tom Nichols
This was the best book that I’ve read in 2020.
Nichols is the professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He wrote this book several years back, but it has been very helpful for me in this present one. It’s enabled me to better understand why many are so skeptical about the science around masks, vaccines, and other Covid-related matters.
The book argues that the United States is currently suffering from an epidemic of anti-rationalism. That is, not only do people cling tightly to verifiably wrong information, they also actively resist further learning that would make them confront that they are wrong. Nichols argues that, because of both confirmation bias and the Dunning-Krueger effect, many people reject the expertise of scholars, doctors, and the well-trained in order to continue to believe only what they want to accept as truth.
The Death of Expertise also connects the dots between anti-rationalism and proponents of conspiracy theories. Those who regularly reject reality in order to adopt a more complicated version of such often do so because of fear. The adoption of a conspiracy theory might be a way for someone to hide from something they don’t wish to actually accept.
Tom Nichols has a lot more to say about all of this. He also offers some solutions on how we might recover. Check out his book here.
 Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s already existing belief or theory.
 The Dunning Krueger effect is the tendency of people who aren’t skilled or trained at a certain task to believe that they are better equipped for it than they actually are.